Josh Freed: I got a close-up view of the ingenuity of unhoused people

The inhabitants of an encampment on my street proudly kept to themselves and asked nothing of us but space — before police made them leave.

Article content

Amid all the news about student encampments, I’ve had my own encampment to think about: a tent village of unhoused people living outside my home.

It added a new neighbourhood to the neighbourhood and offered a porthole into unhoused life in our city.

Article content

I live across from Mount Royal near Duluth Ave., a street many of us used to drive home and where Jeanne Mance Park families always parked to unload their skis, barbecues and sports stuff.

Advertisement 2

Article content

But last year our car-cranky Projèt Montréal borough partly closed Duluth to slightly enlarge the park and eliminate parking.

However, the street can’t be greened into parkland for several years under zoning rules. So for the past year, the ex-street has been car-free but mostly people-free, too.

Why hang out on an asphalt street when there’s a vast green space beside it?

Then several weeks ago, the former street found an unexpected purpose. An unhoused gentleman set up a tent and moved in, and several days later a second tent appeared.

Within three weeks, we had five tents and a growing encampment that was hard to ignore.

We learned some newcomers had been ejected from a now-closing nearby shelter and were waiting for living quarters elsewhere.

Fair enough, I thought. Live and let live. But it was strange to leave home and see tents, dogs, garbage bags, rusted bikes and drying laundry decorating the street.

It was also a close-up view of the ingenuity of many without homes. The new arrivals patiently made dinner on small propane burners or barbecues and often shared cooking and looked out for each other’s stuff.

Advertisement 3

Article content

They proudly kept to themselves and asked nothing of us but space. In fact, they proved relatively responsible neighbours: no loud parties, late-night music or tam-tam concerts like some park habitués provided.

Yet it was hard not to wonder how long they’d remain or how big the growing encampment might get.

Some neighbours with kids phoned 311 but were told to contact the police, not the city. They did, and cops came to see the visitors more than once, accompanied by an intervenante “psychosocial” worker.

She and the police were respectful and humane to the newcomers and eventually told my neighbours they’d let the tents be until shelters were found.

It sparked many questions. Montreal’s unhoused population has almost doubled since COVID. They’re sleeping in doorways, seeking change at intersections and poking questions at our consciences.

Where is the affordable housing we keep promising those priced out of homes by soaring rents and renovictions? Why doesn’t Quebec fund enough desperately needed shelters?

Is the homelessness crisis now largely a housing crisis, along with a mental-health one? These questions become more immediate when those affected are practically outside your door.

Advertisement 4

Article content

We gradually learned that some newcomers were reluctant to move. One had been evicted from a crowded nearby shelter where he’d been since 2021 — then offered space in Verdun. But he didn’t want to leave the neighbourhood.

Another didn’t like available shelters because they’d separate him from a girlfriend sharing his tent.

That sparked more questions. Could people legitimately refuse shelters indefinitely? Then again, can more community shelters start allowing men and women to cohabit?

Whatever the answers, I gradually grew more accustomed to our small encampment. Part of me even thought perhaps this could be a short-term solution: every street takes a few tents and we all share the problem.

But last week police suddenly moved in. They said there’d been many complaints from neighbours while female students and other pedestrians felt nervous at night.

Duluth Ave. was getting grungy, too, because city sweepers had stopped coming.

A surprisingly large number of squad cars and officers surrounded the encampment. They were firm, yet gentle and diplomatic: part social workers, part police.

Advertisement 5

Article content

One man was reluctant to leave his tent and a long negotiation ensued, with the district police chief himself present. A new “mobile mediation” team was there, too.

Montreal police 2.0 have come a long way from my college days when “riot cops” on horses routinely broke up demonstrations by beating us with billy clubs.

Instead of “defunding” police, we’re slowly retraining them as more women, minorities, mediators and bike cops gradually join their patrols.

Our new police chief, Fady Dagher, promises to increase diverse hiring as well as “partnerships” with social services. Let’s hope so.

A few neighbours were upset to see the encampment taken down. But police said they’d found large knives in several tents, perhaps for self-defence, as well as injection needles.

So they decided the tents should come down.

By last weekend the encampment had vanished, street sweepers had moved in and our recent neighbours moved on to who knows what shelters or alleyways.

Duluth is an empty, car-free and largely people-free wasted space again, but now that seems less irritating to me.

It’s a tiny concern compared to life for those who’ve left our street in search of someplace else to momentarily call home.

Josh Freed will be interviewing The Gazette’s Dr. Joe Schwarcz about ”Scientific sense vs. nonsense” at the 25th anniversary of McGill’s OSS. Free admission, Thursday at 7 p.m.

[email protected]

Recommended from Editorial

Advertisement 6

Article content

Article content